Dating back to the mid-19th century, Lebanon’s regional lead in quality higher education was firmly established and widely recognized. This is the country that introduced quality higher education to the Middle East a full 150 years before it became fashio
  President’s Forum: Notes from Dr. Mawad  
Michel E. Mawad, M.D.

Dear Members of our LAU Community,

Dating back to the mid-19th century, Lebanon’s regional lead in quality higher education was firmly established and widely recognized. This is the country that introduced quality higher education to the Middle East a full 150 years ago before it became fashionable in other Arab countries starting in the 1990s. A quick glance at the regional higher education landscape today reveals scores of young and growing private, profit and non-profit startups in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Iraq, Tunisia and Morocco. 

It all started here at a time when there were no public universities and the very concept of private higher education was a total novelty. It took the rest of the region a whole century to start the long process of catching up. 

Thanks to this major first-mover advantage, Lebanon was branded since the 1920s as the region’s foremost educational hub producing the finest physicians, engineers, lawyers, business leaders and teachers. Those who studied at one of Lebanon’s major private universities between the early 1950s and the late 1990s recall the multitudes of non-Lebanese classmates from every Arab country and as far afield as Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan. In parallel, medical practice, engineering practice, business acumen, the hospitality and advertising industries, and many other streams of socio-economic development in several Arab countries owe a good deal of their advanced standards to Lebanese expatriates. Most of those expatriates were, and still are, the product of Lebanon’s leading private universities. 

The very sector that was so instrumental in building Lebanon’s glorious image is currently beleaguered and facing one of the greatest risks it has ever had to reckon with. The measure of this existential risk is best gauged by realizing that it dwarfs what it had to go through during two world wars, the Lebanese war and several rounds of civil strife and upheavals – to the point that it threatens the sector’s continuity as the country’s epicenter for its prime asset: the brain industry.

These existential risks are many: decimation of the middle class leading to a sharp rise in the numbers of students in need of financial aid (currently the number is 5,494 at LAU requiring a budget of $80 million); the local currency freefall against the dollar that has wrought havoc on our budgets and created the ominous danger of a mass exodus of our faculty, physicians, and researchers; and a serious challenge to our role in international networks due to the country’s increased isolation partly caused by  the pandemic. 

It is no exaggeration to say that the higher education sector in Lebanon is showing signs of strain in every aspect of its operation. It is facing financial havoc, faculty retention challenges, delivery complications, and a growth freeze at a time when the rest of the region is moving in leaps and bounds in this same domain. Most of all, for the first time, it is uncertain about its future and troubled about its ability to sustain itself in coming years should the present debacle continue. 

Should the ailments currently afflicting it continue, Lebanon’s loss would simply be incalculable. The comparative advantage the country has enjoyed in this domain has all but defined Lebanon for far too long and kept it ahead of the regional curve in ways that were at the heart of its relative prosperity. Besides quality liberal arts education and professional training, the higher education sector has been a major contributor to economic growth, per capita income, employment and more recently the knowledge economy. In equal measure, it has been at the heart of Lebanon’s civil liberties, free speech and media, artistic life and vibrant culture. 

With so much at stake, it behooves us all to work together toward salvaging the higher education sector and helping it resume its growth course as quickly as possible. Despite its many problems, the government can accelerate this process through a number of specific measures beginning with steering away from over-regulation and respecting the sector's hard-earned autonomy over centuries. The government can also facilitate the universities' access to their funds currently under siege at Lebanese banks. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the government can work with this sector as a major engine for recovery and a strategic partner in mitigating the current crisis. 

Lebanon’s quality higher education is iconic for the very identity of this country. As such, we are called upon to unify our efforts to make sure that its present and future are as robust as its glorious past. This is a mission possible if we have the will.


Michel E. Mawad, M.D.
Lebanese American University